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Sometimes the threat of unionizing is enough to create change

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the pandemic, workers have gained a lot of power. Some are demanding change by unionizing. Retail workers at an Apple store joined a union yesterday, a first. And sometimes just the threat of a union is enough to get bosses to act. That's what happened at one local coffee business in Wisconsin. NPR's Andrea Hsu takes us there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All righty. I've got that medium cappuccino all set.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: I've come to Stone Creek Coffee's Factory Cafe. It's one of eight Stone Creek locations around the Milwaukee area. Eric Resch is walking me around the 130-year-old building, which also houses their roastery, their bakery and their training lab.

ERIC RESCH: We'll be teaching latte art, how to pull espresso. This is where we also have parties and throw-downs and other events at the factory.

HSU: Resch founded this business almost 30 years ago after working as a barista and a manager at Starbucks. From the start, he'd embraced the idea that the business has an obligation to care for those around it - everyone from the farmers who grow the beans to the staff who brew the coffee. He saw himself as a boss who was accessible, someone who listened and learned. But a few years ago, something happened that shattered that view. It started with a notice from the Teamsters.

RESCH: I think it actually came in the mail as a certified letter.

HSU: Followed up by an email. Turns out his staff at Stone Creek Coffee had been organizing, and they wanted Resch to voluntarily recognize a union. His initial reaction...

RESCH: Surprised - like, wow, OK. This is something I've never encountered before.

HSU: This was two and a half years before unionizing took off at Starbucks. But elsewhere in the service industry, workers were speaking out. Kellie Lutz, one of his baristas, had taken note of fast-food workers demanding $15 an hour. It made her reflect on her own wage at the time - 8.25 an hour before tips.

KELLIE LUTZ: What I make can't even pay for, like, two lattes.

HSU: The math didn't add up for her when she and the other baristas were the ones enduring so much stress.

LUTZ: Someone calls in sick or there is a line out the door or the air conditioning isn't working or whatever else - like, we can't go to the bathroom - all of that stuff, like, that all adds up over time.

HSU: Lutz had grumbled about some of these things, but not to Eric Resch.

LUTZ: I didn't even meet him until a petition was put through.

HSU: It was a humbling moment for Resch. He thought he had created systems for workers to speak up. Now he realized they were broken. A week after receiving the Teamsters letter, Resch began holding workshops.

RESCH: I stood before my team - I mean, I remember it very clearly - and I said, talk to me. What is it that I missed? What is it that you all are asking for?

HSU: He wanted a chance to make things right without a union, but it was fraught. He said no to voluntary recognition of the union and brought in a couple of lawyers to help him through the next steps. Suddenly, he was being called a union buster. His workshops were captive audience meetings. It was an emotionally draining time for him, but he came out of it with a clear understanding that some workers felt unheard. They couldn't get their ideas and perspectives across.

RESCH: There were not enough ways for that to be done. Organizing as a union was certainly a way to do it, but there are certainly other ways to come at the problem.

HSU: He was relieved that a majority of his employees agreed. The staff rejected the union, allowing Resch to take a deep breath and reflect.

RESCH: I learned a lot. I changed the company a lot.

HSU: Among the changes, he created two traveling positions, baristas who can go cover in any cafe when someone calls out. He started putting out schedules three weeks in advance instead of one week in advance. And he now meets with an employee council every two months. They do something called hot or not.

RESCH: What's hot? I love this drink. I love the new Geisha coffee. What's not? It's not hot when we have to fill a catering box of coffee and it spills.

HSU: Someone suggested a funnel would help - easy solution to a problem he may have been oblivious to in the past. Resch has also come to see the value of sharing what he's dealing with, too, including financial uncertainty. There were many years, he says, when Stone Creek only broke even and others when they barely survived.

RESCH: I can understand why someone might think, oh, wow, they can afford to build a store, but they may not realize that we borrowed money to build the store.

HSU: Now he opens the company's books to any staff member who asks. I ask him, in a way, was the union drive good for Stone Creek?

RESCH: I mean, that's too simple. It's not a good thing or a bad thing. It's a thing that we learned from.

HSU: That made them stronger and a better employer. Of course, for some, it may still not be enough, to which Resch would say, you know, everyone has a choice.

RESCH: I have a choice to run and own this company. And I will continue to do it as long as I love it and I'm healthy. And they have a choice whether this is a good environment for them to work in.

HSU: After Stone Creek's Union election, Kellie Lutz, the barista who launched it all, made her choice. She quit her job and found a new calling. She's now a certified nursing assistant and a union shop steward at a hospital. Her union aspirations carry on. Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.